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From brain science, new questions about free will

July 1, 2010
Courtesy of Science
and World Science staff

Phi­loso­phers since an­cient times have strug­gled with the ques­tion of wheth­er hu­mans have any free will. With forc­es such as God or mo­lec­u­lar in­ter­ac­tions—de­pend­ing on whom you asked and when—said to ul­ti­mately con­trol eve­ry­thing, can hu­mans really make any de­ci­sions “in­de­pen­dently”?

Some sci­en­tists say re­cent re­search val­i­dates such con­cerns, cast­ing doubt on the com­mon hu­man feel­ing that we are able to make up our own minds, at least in the way we like to think.

In the July 2 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence, Ruud Cus­ters and Henk Aarts of Utrecht Uni­vers­ity in The Neth­er­lands dis­cuss re­search sug­gest­ing our sub­con­scious thoughts can ma­ni­pu­late our goals and mo­tiva­t­ions much more than sci­en­tists have ev­er im­ag­ined.

“Although it is of­ten tak­en for granted that goal pur­suit orig­i­nates in con­scious de­ci­sions, it can al­so arise from un­con­scious sources,” the pair wrote.

Re­cent find­ings show that the hu­man brain is of­ten steps ahead of its own­er, Cus­ters and Aarts ex­plained: the brain pre­pares the ac­tion well be­fore any con­scious thoughts in­struct it to do so. 

The sci­en­tists cit­ed work by re­search­ers such as John Bargh at Yale Uni­vers­ity and Pe­ter Goll­witzer at New York Uni­vers­ity start­ing in 2001. Bargh and col­leagues showed how mo­tiva­t­ion to­ward a goal could arise with­out con­scious aware­ness, Cus­ter and Aarts wrote. “S­tu­dents were seated at a ta­ble to work on two seem­ingly un­re­lat­ed lan­guage puz­zles. For some stu­dents, the first puz­zle in­clud­ed words re­lat­ed to achieve­ment (such as win or achieve), and for oth­ers it did not. Stu­dents who were ex­posed to achieve­ment words were found to out­per­form the oth­ers on the sec­ond puz­zle.”

Cus­ter and Aarts pre­s­ent a the­o­ry based on the idea that the hu­man brain is de­signed for ac­tion, con­tin­u­ously and sub­con­sciously pro­cess­ing in­forma­t­ion rel­e­vant to our be­hav­ior, so that it is con­stantly ready to “in­struct” its own­er how to deal with the op­por­tun­i­ties and chal­lenges posed by our en­vi­ron­ments.

The frame­work the au­thors pro­pose for this sub­con­scious decision-making pro­cess, they said, helps re­veal just how thor­oughly these un­con­scious thoughts per­me­ate our ev­eryday lives.

“Ear­lier re­search has shown that ac­tion goals, such as mov­ing a fin­ger, that were in­i­tially con­sciously set are un­con­sciously pre­pared be­fore they are acted on,” they wrote. “The lit­er­a­ture re­viewed here sug­gests that the un­con­scious na­ture of the will has an even more per­va­sive im­pact on our life. Goals far more com­plex than fin­ger move­ments, can guide be­hav­ior with­out be­ing con­sciously set first, when they them­selves are ac­ti­vat­ed out­side con­scious aware­ness.”


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Philosophers since ancient times have struggled with the question of whether humans have any free will. With forces such as God or molecular interactions—depending on whom you asked and when—said to ultimately control everything, can humans really make any decisions “independently”? Some scientists say recent research validates such concerns, casting doubt on the common human feeling that we are able to make up our own minds, at least in the way we like to think. In the July 2 issue of the research journal Science, Ruud Custers and Henk Aarts of the Utrecht University in The Netherlands discuss research suggesting that our subconscious thoughts could manipulate our goals and motivations much more than scientists have ever imagined. “Although it is often taken for granted that goal pursuit originates in conscious decisions, it can also arise from unconscious sources,” the pair wrote. Recent findings show that the human brain is often steps ahead of its owner, Custers and Aarts explained: the brain prepares the action well before any conscious thoughts instruct it to do so. The scientists cited work by researchers such as John Bargh at Yale University and Peter Gollwitzer at New York University starting in 2001 in support of this thesis. Bargh and colleagues showed how motivation toward a goal could arise without conscious awareness, Custer and Aarts wrote. “Students were seated at a table to work on two seemingly unrelated language puzzles. For some students, the first puzzle included words related to achievement (such as win or achieve), and for others it did not. Students who were exposed to achievement words were found to outperform the others on the second puzzle.” Custer and Aarts present a theory based on the idea that the human brain is designed for action, continuously and subconsciously processing information relevant to our behavior, so that it is constantly ready to “instruct” its owner how to deal with the opportunities and challenges posed by our environments. The framework the authors propose for this subconscious decision-making process, they said, helps reveal just how thoroughly these unconscious thoughts permeate our everyday lives. “Earlier research has shown that action goals, such as moving a finger, that were initially consciously set are unconsciously prepared before they are acted on,” they wrote. “The literature reviewed here suggests that the unconscious nature of the will has an even more pervasive impact on our life. Goals far more complex than finger movements, can guide behavior without being consciously set first, when they themselves are activated outside conscious awareness.”